Over the last few years, participatory mapping by indigenous communities has been heralded as a breakthrough in their relations with corporations and modern states. As the theory goes, by mapping sacred cultural sites and natural resources essential to their survival, indigenous nations can help corporate states avoid unnecessary conflict through cooperative conservation. Of course, that is only one theory, the other being that by informing corporate states of their most fundamental vulnerabilities, indigenous nations are plotting their own doom.
As it happens, this concern over betrayal by modern states, corporations and NGOs behind the participatory mapping phenomenon is well-founded. According to renowned cartographer and social scientist Denis Wood, his research in Oaxaca, Mexico reveals that participatory mapping gets turned into a method for making maps that support state and military interventions into Indigenous life. The title of his forthcoming book — Weaponizing Maps, a genealogy of U.S. Army mapping of indigenous populations where counter-insurgency military measures have been used for U.S. interests abroad — kind of sums up his view on the topic.
While participatory mapping can help indigenous peoples better understand their situation, when shared with their potential enemies, it is a double-edged sword.
[Jay Taber is an associate scholar of the Center for World Indigenous Studies, an author, and a contributing editor of Fourth World Journal. Since 1994, he has served as the administrative director of Public Good Project.]